Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Faster Running

I received two emails this week from triathletes who wanted to know how they could become faster runners. One believed it could be done simply by knowing a few key workouts to do. I wish it was so simple. There are no magic workouts to make you a fast runner. In fact, you can take a fast runner and have him/her do exactly the 'wrong' workouts and he/she will still run fast.

The best runner I ever coached was Ryan Bolton. He was an All-American runner at the University of Wyoming who moved to triathlon after graduation. In college he ran sub-30 minutes for 10k. Pretty good for a triathlete. He went on to make the US Olympic Triathlon team in 2000 and won Ironman USA in 2002.

If I could create the perfect runner starting with a youngster I would do it just as Ryan did growing up. In grade school he ran sprints and was fast. In junior high school he moved up to the 800 meters. In high school he ran the mile and two mile. And in college he ran 5000. He didn't start trying to run as far as he could slowly. Just the opposite. He started out running short distances very fast and over several years lengthened the races, but still ran fast.

One of those triathletes who wrote me about wanting to run faster this season told me she had entered a marathon as she believed that as the way to run faster. I hated to burst her bubble but I told her that I thought this was exactly the wrong thing to do. Running slowly for a long time doesn't make you a faster runner. It only makes you good at running slowly for a long time.

I told her that the starting point for becoming faster was to decide what was standing between her and faster running--her run limiter. For most runners that starting place for limiters is usually some combination of running posture, cadence and footstrike. Posture is tall, head in a neutral position (not looking down) with a slight S-shape from the spine through the legs. Cadence is at least 88 rpm at all times--even when running slowly (count your right foot strikes for one minute). Most age group runners are around 78 to 84 rpm. That means a lot of loping with vertical oscillation. Footstrike is flat or midsole, however you best visualize it. It is definitely not back on the heels as probably 80% of all runners land. It is also not on the toes or ball of the foot with the heel off the ground. For some reason, that is what most runners think they are supposed to do when they make the change. The best drill for learning to flat foot strike is the 'paw-back' drill. Aggresively pull the foot backwards to the ground on each stride until it becomes habitual and effort or thought is no longer necessary (actually, the foot doesn't move backwards when pawing back--it decelerates, but I don't want to get too deep into thinking about the details here). Land on the flat or midsole of your foot. You can't put your foot down too soon. For more details on this see my blog entry below .

Once all three of these are optimized then it's time to start thinking about workouts that will help you get faster. These will almost always be short intervals at first--less than two minutes duration with long recoveries (at least two minutes). Then just as a young runner would do as he/she matures, the intervals get longer until one is doing six- to twelve-minute intervals with short recoveris--fast! This entire process could take a year or two. There are no shortcuts to realizing your potential as an athlete.

To see a video clip of Ryan Bolton running go here. Please note his posture, cadence and footstrike. Slow it down and pause frequently to see how his foot contacts the ground. Notice that his foot is always below his knee--not out in front--at foot strike. This is what you should be striving for. With a little dedication to technique and a steady approach to improvement you can eventually run as smoothly as he does.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Shoe Revolution

There's a revolution emerging in running shoes. New start ups are leading the way, albeit without many ad dollars, as the well-established shoe makers continue putting out increasingly control-oriented shoes designed to counteract the other problems they build in. The issue is now efficiency--not control or cushioning. The big guys are slow to figure this out.

Efficiency means going faster for the same effort. This is probably the area where triathletes and runners could stand to improve their running the most, yet few do anything about it even though it is relatively easy to make changes given enough time, direction and dedication.

Gone are the days of teaching runners to land on their heels and roll to the forefoot like a rocking chair. That’s simply a way to run slowly while increasing the risk of injury. The emphasis is now on a flatfoot or midfoot strike with body weight transferring to the ball of the foot almost immediately. The big guys don't seem to have figured this out yet. They still want you landing on your heels.

Unfortunately, this transition to a new style of running isn’t free of injury risk either. Those who have been heel runners for a long time have soft tissues in the feet and lower legs which have atrophied from disuse. Changing abruptly to a midfoot strike is likely to aggravate and inflame these weak tissues. It will take some time to adapt. Shoes from innovative manufacturers are now being designed to help you learn to run correctly while reducing your risk of injury and shortening the time necessary to make the change.

Take for example, the Newton Running shoe, designed by a pedorthist-ultrarunner from Boulder. The Newton shoe has four “actuator lugs” under the ball of the foot that promote better use of the forefoot while running. They retail for $155 to $175. Another running shoe in this category is the Velocy. Its design encourages forward lean which is a critical element in running with good technique. Just putting the shoe on and walking around makes you aware that body weight is shifting quickly to the forefoot. These shoes retail for about $125

As always, big companies are slow to respond to changes in the market. There have been exceptions, such as Nike's minimalist Free shoe. But for the most part the major shoe makers just keep adding more gizmos to their shoes to increase their support--which is necessary because they designed a thick-heeled, unstable shoe in the first place. They'll eventually catch up, but it will take a while.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Risk-Reward and Bike Training

I received an email from an over-50 rider in Australia who is doing l'Etape de Tour in France in July. l'Etape is a cycling event for amateur riders that is done on one of the Tour de France stage routes every year. Some race it. Others just try to finish. This year it will be 198km with five mountain passes to climb. He believes it will take him nine hours to complete and asked if that should be his longest ride in training. Here's my reply...

I've trained a couple of riders in the past for l'Etape. No one this year though. Quite an event.

How long should one's longest ride be when the event will take nine hours? To answer this, the primary consideration is the risk-reward ratio. Every workout, including long rides, has a reward in the form of increased fitness associated with it. And every workout also has a risk associated with it. This means that there is the possibility of an overuse injury, burnout and overtraining.

Viewed as a graph, at least for most well-conditioned riders I've coached, the reward line would rise little in the first few minutes and then become gradually steeper for perhaps two to three hours before it would begin to rise at a decreasing rate some where around four hours. Eventually it would plateau, meaning even though the athlete is riding longer, fitness is no longer benefiting from the increased time. The risk line on the graph would remain rather flat for a couple of hours and then begin to gradually rise, perhaps around three hours. Starting at around four hours the risk line would get steeper. By about six hours, I believe, it would be quite steep and would intersect the reward line. This is the point that I believe the ride should be stopped. Risk now exceeds reward.

This is not to say there isn't a psychological benefit associated with going the entire goal/projected time in one ride. If you feel really intimidated by the prospect of riding for nine hours then there may be some mental relief from having ridden that long once in training. But having done so in your own back yard doesn't mean you'll be able to do it in the mountains of France. If I was coaching you we wouldn't ride that long until the day of the event. We would, instead, do rides of up to six hours and would gradually add in more climbing so that eventually your long ride is made up mostly of hills (which, by the way, also increases the slope of the risk line). It's more important to get the intensity right than the duration. I would also have you do a ride of this duration and intensity no closer to the event than three weeks. Six hours is a long time in the saddle, especially if you are climbing a lot. It will take several days to fully recover from this. Perhaps a week. That would leave two weeks until the event to taper and peak. You can read about peaking on my

Of course, there is a lot more that goes into preparing for such an event than just building fitness. One other major issue is on-bike nutrition--fuel, fluids, sodium. Be sure to address this as it has as much to do with your success in such an event as does fitness.

Good luck! I hope to hear that you did well.


Friday, May 4, 2007

Patient aggressiveness and bike racing

One of the cyclists I coach is making excellent physical progress toward his A-priority race goal of a podium at his state's road race championships in a few weeks. Here's a note I sent to him describing what I think is the key to his success...

"We're down to five weeks until the State Road Champs. I'm pretty sure we'll have your fitness ready for the race. As mentioned last week, you are in better shape on the bike than one year ago, according to the PM Chart. I suspect that is true in reality, also. But you're not going to physically dominate the group like a Lance would do. So the key to a podium at state roads is probably more mental than physical. Unlike most other endurance sports, bike racing outcomes are usually determined as much by strategy and tactics as by physical fitness. I believe success in road racing is primarily based on two racer mental qualities: patience and aggressiveness.

"Patience is the capacity for calm endurance. When everyone around you in the group is starting to nervously wind it up, the patient rider calmly positions himself for what he anticipates will soon happen--and then waits for the proper moment to finally be aggressive. Bike racing patience comes from knowledge gained through experience--knowing the riders to watch, knowing the course, and knowing the way the race is likely to unfold.

"Aggressiveness is assertive and bold riding. This is the easy part. In covering another rider's move or in attacking, this is when the fit cyclist may "burn a match" with an appropriate amount of effort/power for the situation--not too much or too little.

"The patiently aggressive rider unleashes the restraints at just the right moment--neither too soon or too late. His power is applied at exactly the right time. In contrast, the impatient rider becomes assertive at the wrong times and squanders precious energy. The aggressive part is easy. Most riders waste their matches by riding aggressively at the wrong times and so are likely to remove themselves from the key moments in the race when the outcome is being determined.

"Patience is hard to learn. You must restrain yourself when your body is feeling powerful and anxious. This is the time to become finely tuned in to what is going on around you. Instead of needlessly burning a match at these times focus on getting yourself in just the right position so that you can't get boxed in and are ready to respond to any important moves. Now is the time to pay attention to other riders. Is anyone looking around nervously, shifting, moving up or back, out of the saddle, repositioning to the left, tightening shoe closures, etc. Listen to what is going on around you, especially breathing and gear changing. If the sun is right, watch for shadows coming up from behind you. Observe the other riders' faces--nervous, calm, suffering, placid? Using all of this information, you should always be ready to spring at just the right time to take advantage of someone else's match while conserving yours for when it really counts.

"I'll remind you of patient aggressiveness over the next few weeks as you prepare for a podium. You should practice this quality in your group rides and lower priority races in the next few weeks. If you master this skill, given your new level of fitness, you should be there at the finish. This will be fun."